We had plenty of time in Venice itself at the beginning and end of the river cruise, but we also visited Padua, Farrara, Ravenna and Verona, all of which were very interesting. To do them justice, I'm only going to talk about Venice in this post and will do another blog or two about the others in different weeks. I can only give a flavour of amazing Venice without writing for ever about it so I'm illustrating it with a few of the hundreds of photos I took along the way.
Although we've stayed in Venice for almost a week in the past, and have visited two other times, there is always something new to discover and this trip provided many firsts. The company we travelled with, Uniworld, was exceptional in the way they looked after their passengers and we had the advantage of being a light load of no more than sixty. We usually do our own thing on cruises but this time everything was included - tours as well - and it proved how well worth it is to have a local Italian guide who speaks excellent English.
Our first morning began with a guided walk around Venice, through back alleys, beside small canals, and over many bridges, ending at Piazza San Marco. It allowed the guide to point out the refuse collection system in action - all done by barge, as is everything else. Refuse is left outside the homes and buildings and is collected twice a day then loaded by a neat machine onto the barge and taken away. We also kept well away from the crowds for much of the morning and discovered the intriguing stone faces with open mouth on a wall here and there which once allowed people to post a secret complaint. This would eventually find its way to the Doge. As you can imagine, my romantic imagination found a much better use for them than complaints!
Our walk ended at San Marco and we were delighted to discover the company had arranged for us to have a visit inside the Doge's Palace and a walk through the Bridge of Sighs - without joining the massive queue already forming. Although I was interested in seeing inside the palace, I was even keener to walk through the bridge of sighs as we normally only see it from the outside. You can see my photo from both views. This was where the prisoners used to walk from cell to death and the bridge evidently was given its romantic name by Lord Byron (of course) who imagined the sighs of the poor prisoners catching sight of their last view on earth through the gaps in the stonework.
The highlight of that first day was a unique, private viewing inside the famous Basilica in the evening. A local (English) art historian accompanied us and pointed out the important paintings and relevant history while we sat in the seats. The altar seemed quite dark but she told us to take a little quiet time to reflect and then the lights were gradually switched on to reveal the basilica in all its glory. A truly magical moment.
Unbelievably, we were then invited to accompany her down to the crypt where few have access. This was deliciously creepy and atmospheric and we all agreed we'd not like to get locked in! This allegedly holds part of the remains of St Mark and is a revered part of the Basilica. I was delighted when the guide said the caretaker on duty was slightly more lenient and would allow discreet photos without flash - an honour indeed. Our lovely river boat was moored about 15 minutes walk away from Piazza San Marco so we said thank you and goodbye at the end and wandered back on our own, enjoying Venice in the evening.
At the end of the cruise, we had our final day back in Venice, moored along the same brilliant venue, with its easy walking access to the centre. Since we were celebrating our anniversary on Saturday, we elected to go off on our own for the morning and set off immediately after breakfast. You are always advised to get lost in Venice as it's part of the fun and discovery of the best hidden parts away from crowds and this proved true.
I had remembered a wonderful little church with walls of marble from years ago but didn't know where exactly it lay, apart from being beside a canal which are plentiful in Venice! So we started wandering through the back streets and narrow alleys, over countless bridges, always going forwards where possible. Suddenly, around one corner there it stood on front of us, the Santa Maria dei Miracoli, dating from 1481 to 1489. We did get lost in the end but finally found our way back to San Marco to enjoy a special anniversary treat of coffee at the famous 18th century Florians in the square while listening to the orchestra.
To cap the evening off, they had a farewell masked cocktail party before dinner, so of course I didn't need an excuse to buy another Venetian mask and even Simon bought one this time! One of the pleasures of cruising on a small ship is meeting other guests from around the world and we enjoyed some good company from Australia, America, Canada and England. Simon's work colleagues had arranged for a bottle of Champagne and chocolates to be delivered to our stateroom for our anniversary and we enjoyed sharing the special Champagne toast at dinner with the Australian couple that last evening.